The dawn of the 1960s brought with it the promise of change. The country had elected a charismatic young president, John F. Kennedy, the first such candidate born in the 20th century.
And attention was being focused on America’s injustices, namely racism and sexism, as sit-ins began across the south, and women across the country demanded better jobs and equal pay.
But war on the other side of the world would soon redirect much of the country’s attention. Though America’s involvement in Indochina began in the 1950s, it did not become a full-blown problem for the United States until 1961, when America suffered its first casualties.
Kennedy would commit 15,000 troops to the Vietnam conflict. But it was President Lyndon Johnson, assuming the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination, who expanded that involvement into a full-scale war.
As the war escalated, so did the protests back home. Many college campuses across the United States, including UW-Madison, saw anti-war protesters occupy parks and other public places.
In October 1965, police arrested 11 people who took part in a sit-in at the gates of Truax Field. The Wisconsin State Journal made a point to note that the young men wore crew neck sweaters, and the young women were dressed in skirts.
There were more arrests during a protest on the UW-Madison campus against Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of napalm, in February 1967. But the anti-war movement, and Madison, experienced profound change that fall.
What began as a peaceful sit-in protesting Dow recruiters at the old Commerce building on Oct. 18 turned violent after students refused to leave, and police showed up swinging clubs and pulling students from the building.
“In the heat of what was really a battle, the nightsticks were the authorities’ main weapon” was how the scene was described in the next day’s State Journal. “Demonstrators were whacked in the legs, prodded in the stomach or cracked on the head. Many were bleeding. All became violently enraged or totally hysterical.”
From that day on, nothing in Madison would be the same. Protests grew more violent as student activists grew more radical, and battles with police intensified with the use of rocks, night sticks and tear gas.
Anti-war marches and protests would reach their peak in early 1968, after the successful Tet Offensive by North Vietnamese troops brought a halt to predictions of an imminent U.S. victory, and proved to a shocked American public that the war’s end was nowhere in sight.
Following the clubbing of demonstrators on “Dow Day’’ a former UW-Madison student named Karl Armstrong, concluded something needed to be done.
His New Year’s gang, basically Armstrong and his brother Dwight, had already taken credit for the aerial “bombing” of the Badger Army Ammunition Plant near Baraboo on Jan. 1, 1970. The mayonnaise jars filled with fertilizer and fuel oil fell harmlessly to the ground.
Along with co-conspirators David Fine and Leo Burt, the two brothers sought to focus their anti-war wrath against a more meaningful target.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 24, 1970 they parked a stolen van loaded with a homemade bomb next to Sterling Hall. The campus building housed the Army Math Research Center, which had become a target of militant protesters because it received funding from the military.
Five minutes before the blast was due to go off, Fine called police to tell them to clear the building. But the blast was premature. The explosion caused $6 million in damage and killed a 33-year-old physicist, Robert Fassnacht, who was working in the basement on a project unrelated to Army research.
Witnesses compared the explosion and mushroom cloud that followed to an atomic bomb, and three blocks away, residents were knocked from their beds.
Both Armstrongs and Fine were caught, imprisoned and released. Leo Burt has never been found.
The incident shocked a nation already deeply divided over the war, and served to dampen the anti-war movement.